Let’s play a little hypothetical game and assume for the moment that you are a real believer sure of your salvation. Not only are you sure, but other folks, for whom you respect, see evidence in your life and think your salvation is a pretty sure thing too. So with that detail out of the way, let’s move on and next assume that in your heart you have a real desire to be used by the Lord. Hopefully this is not a huge hypothetical leap for you! Now, the question is, how do we go about being “used” by the Lord? (Please bear in mind that I am in no way trying to trivialize salvation by relegating it to a mere “detail”. However, for the sake of this blog, certainly you will agree that salvation is, by definition, a profoundly obvious prerequisite.)
So, what does it take to be effective as Christians and be “used” by the Lord? This is obviously a very basic question. It is also one that I have been mulling over in my own mind for some time now. Do we need to be great in some particular gifting? What do with do with the myriad of shortcomings and foibles and fears and strengths and unique characteristics that you and I have? Is there anything in Scripture that we can apply to all of us across the board? I think the answer is yes. I think the description Paul gives of his ministry in II Corinthians 4:1-6 is uniquely suited to answering this question. Here’s the passage:
Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The God of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. II Corinthians 4:1-6
A Minor Diversion
Before going too far, it’s probably worth mentioning the motif of radiant glory that Paul is weaving through a larger section of II Corinthians than that which is quoted above. Of course, you can and should read chapters 3 and 4 to see it yourself. In lieu of that, here is a brief explanation. When Moses descended from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments, which constituted the essence of the Old Covenant, his face radiated with glory because he had been in the very presence of God. The Israelites couldn’t even look at his face, so he wore a veil to cover this radiant glory. I can’t imagine what that must have been like. However, the key point is that over time the radiant glory seen in Moses’ face faded, and analogously, Paul extrapolates that effect to his teaching about the fading away of the Old Covenant itself. Paul teaches in chapter three that the Old Covenant has been replaced by a better covenant, the New Covenant, which is built on the radiant glory of the Son, and is a far superior Covenant that will never fade away.¼br /> Now, this actually is important. It is important because as believers we operate within the realm and scope of the New Covenant and not within the realm and scope of the Old. Consequently, our effectiveness as a Christian in the New Covenant era will be tied to the unique features of this era. In very, very broad terms, the New Covenant era can be characterized as the era in which the God’s Law is written on the hearts and conscience of true believers, not on external tablets of stone. Basically what that means is that believers are characterized by a radically changed life where we find in ourselves a desire, perhaps even more accurately described as an ultimately insatiable desire, to obey God. Two things are important to mention. First, this desire was not present in us when we were unbelievers and it is not currently present in anyone who does not believe. Second, the laws we are to obey are tied to the New Covenant era. They are not tied to the Old Covenant. There is some definite overlap, but only because the teaching passages tied to the New Covenant bring these concepts over. We can eat pork, wear polyester (though, not in Phoenix in the summer), own mules, work on Sunday, etc…
Now, as believers we may fall into any manner of sin, but like David, ultimately our desire to obey and please our God leads us to repentance. In stark contrast, the Old Covenant era is characterized by a group of people commanded to obey God’s law yet possessing no internal motivation whatsoever to do so. Obedience under the Old Covenant, to whatever degree you could claim that it existed, was purely external and motivated by a self-centered, God-hating heart. An Old Covenant Jew might have obeyed to some degree when the spotlight was on. Perhaps he wanted to avoid unfortunate circumstances such as death, or maybe he wished to gain some clout within the community, but never because he internally desired to please his God. He did nothing more than heap up wrath for himself. The only Old Covenant Jews who stood in a righteous stead before God were the ones for whom Christ ultimately died, like David, and they constituted a rather peculiar minority.
Now, knowing that as believers today we live in the New Covenant era and consequently we are characterized by an internal motivation to obey God, what does an effective Christian look like?
¼br /> The Out Workings of a Change Heart
I don’t think the answer to my question above is complicated at all. In fact, Paul’s statement in Philippians 2:12-13 seems to me to sum it up very succinctly: “…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” An effective Christian is one who is continually working out their salvation with an ever-present understanding of God’s ultimate control of all aspects of life. Now, that verse is fodder for a great motto, perhaps even one of the top ten “life verses” some of us were encouraged to select for ourselves back in the infinite wisdom years of college, but it doesn’t flesh out the techniques for going about it very well. Let’s look at Paul back in II Corinthians 4 to gain some more practical insight.
Courage Based on God’s Mercy
“Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.” (II Cor. 4:1)¼br /> Losing heart is something with which I am quite familiar. Life circumstances, sin and my innate shortcomings often conspire to beat the courage out of me. You may be able to relate. It would seem from Paul’s writings later in this chapter in particular, he could relate. Yet Paul could see the true reality of our situation as believers even when encompassed by the fog of trials and fears and difficulties. The absolute reality is that the God of the universe has granted us mercy through his Son! Our sins are forgiven! Our standing before him is secure! Everything is orchestrated for our good! As believers, nothing (when translated that means not one single thing) can separate us from the love of God. Nothing.
I think if you and I want to be effective for Christ, we have to resolve to fight for courage based on this truth. We have received mercy, we actually have! Nothing can separate us from the love of God, not even that most painful or difficult thing we face! Is it easy? Well, I can’t speak for you, but for me it’s not exactly effortless, but it is possible. The most difficult part for me, honestly, is that I can’t let up for a moment. Joy, courage and contentment are prime real estate over which the spiritual battle rages fiercely. Let up for a moment, and some ground gets snatched out from under you. This is one prime reason why we desperately need each other. No man (or woman) no matter how strong can keep up the battle by themselves. This is why I need you to point out where I’m bleeding and perhaps even bandage me up. Do you care for those around you? Remind them of this truth. Look for areas where they might be bleeding, and then gently bandage them up.
Transparent Purity and Biblical Soundness
“Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception; nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.” (II Cor. 4:2)
Are you transparently real? I’m not asking if you’re perfect, but are you transparently real? Are you making efforts to rid yourself of internal sins? Are you open with others regarding your struggles? Or do you try to deceive yourself and others into believing you’re something that you’re not? I know I have lived a great deal of my life chasing the phantom of worldly perfection. I can assure you, however, that in a whitewashed world, the pursuit of transparency and purity will cause you to stand out. So, for those of us who are more timid by nature, we have to get past our fear of standing out.
Nonetheless, our effectiveness increases when others can see into our lives, when they can see our shortcomings and failures and our struggles against sin. Certainly, some may cluck their tongues and shake their heads while gloating over our failures. Those people likely aren’t real believers; we should pray for them. If they are believers, then it is quite possible they are being maneuvered by the Father into an extremely precarious position in which they are being poised for, shall we say, a rather indelible experience. (1 Peter 5:5-6, Hebrews 12:7-11) I’m pretty sure I’ve been there before, and will probably be back in the future. Nonetheless, we need to be ready to gently dust these believers off when they finally stop tumbling. However, many real believers who have been softened by life’s struggles will intimately relate to our honesty, and be encouraged as long as we’re being real and pressing on in the fight. Bear in mind that none of us benefit if we just coddle each other’s sin, though. Therefore, part of being effective is being transparent in your struggles while also being relentless in your fight. May God help us with this!
Pretty easy so far, right? Well, fortunately for us there is more. How accurately do you handle Scripture? Do you humbly seek to understand it correctly even if that sometimes means admitting your wrong or admitting ignorance? Are you trying to learn how to set forth the truth plainly? I don’t think you need to be a seminary professor to be effective, but are you looking to apply what you do know correctly, and learn more to fill in what you don’t know. Or, like me do you often let arrogance restrain you from admitting you really don’t understand a particular passage and you need some help from those who are more mature in the faith?
On the other hand, however, you may have vast theological knowledge and be capable of expounding any and every passage you like. If that’s the case, then certainly your deep understanding of sin would allow you to concede that is at least theoretically possible that you yourself might be deceived, and therefore might potentially be over estimating your own abilities by a fraction. But even if you are not, what does your life say about you? It speaks far louder than any of your most eloquent exposition. (For those of you who are married, perhaps you can read the earlier sentence as “what does your wife (or husband) say about you?” For those of us who are single, we’re at a bit of a disadvantage, or advantage depending on whether we are currently trying to fight sin or satisfy sin. We have a much easier time hiding things…)
Practical Understanding of God’s Sovereignty
“And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
This section is rich in imagery and parallels between the glory that emanated from the face of Moses, the veil that he used to shield his face from the Israelites, the glory that emanates from Christ and the veil that currently covers the eyes of unbelievers. Christ’s glory is far superior to the glory displayed in Moses, just as the New Covenant, for which Christ is a mediator, is far superior to the Old Covenant, in which the Law was mediated to the Israelites through Moses on Mt. Sinai. Furthermore, the veil that covers the eyes of unbelievers today is far more impenetrable than the veil the shielded Moses’ face from the Israelites. We cannot lift the veil. God must do that. Nonetheless we are responsible for setting forth the gospel before a dying world. Consequently, part of our effectiveness as Christians comes from wrestling to understand and striving to live our daily lives in light of God’s ultimate and total sovereignty. We are servants of an Omnipotent and Sovereign God. We are part of His unfolding plan, but we are not the main attraction. We both rest in His sovereignty and stand in awe of it at the same time.
You may be feeling a little light-headed right now as if you’re a bit inebriated. I know my head is swimming, and no, I haven’t had a drink. There is a peculiar profoundness to being effective as a Christian. On one hand, absolutely nothing special at all is required. No unique gifts, no sordid past to spice up a testimony, no particular kind of magnetic personality. In one sense, as a believer, you are most effective when you are profoundly you. When you let people into your struggles, when you cast off any pretense and doggedly pursue holiness, when you humbly dig into Scripture and let it mold your life. It is in within this environment that the Omnipotent God of the Universe seems to pull back the veil and things you could never dream up begin to happen. On the other hand, although it doesn’t require anything special, it does require that we as believers constantly work at these things as we encourage and pray for one another along the way.